America’s “war on drugs” has cost billions of dollars annually since the early 1980s. For example, the federal government was projected to spend $16 billion to control illegal drugs in 1998, a nearly sixfold increase from the amount spent in 1985. The nation’s antidrug campaign—including arrests of drug users and traffickers as well as the interdiction of drug shipments—has had mixed success. It helped to slash the number of regular users of illicit drugs from twentythree million in 1981 to twelve million in 1996. Cocaine use, for example, has substantially declined. However, marijuana use among teenagers and the number of teen drug users doubled between 1992 and 1995.
Experts sharply disagree as to which strategies are most effective at reducing drug use in America, a country that surpasses all other nations in demand for illegal drugs. While some observers advocate increased law enforcement efforts to seize drugs and uncover supply routes, others argue that more emphasis on drug treatment and prevention programs is necessary to reduce the demand for illegal drugs.
Many politicians and others assert that law enforcement authorities, attacking each link from cultivation to street sales, have achieved significant reductions in supplies of illegal drugs. According to narcotics expert William J. Olson, “The record of prohibition is impressive.” He notes that from 1982 to 1992, drug prohibition and interdiction reduced teenage drug use to its lowest level in twenty years, cut monthly cocaine use by 78 percent, and resulted in the seizure of nearly half of the cocaine produced worldwide. According to New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal, “The drug war has made substantial progress that would have been impossible without laws and public support.”
As part of its drug control strategy, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) stresses the importance of cracking down on domestic and foreign sources of illegal drugs as well as seizing drugs at the nation’s borders. The office’s 1997 annual report states, “Opposing international criminal organizations that traffic in drugs at all stages of their operation and in all their operating environments is essential.”
However, opponents of this strategy argue that it is futile to try to block the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. Critics of a supply-oriented ap- proach concur with former San Jose, California, police chief Joseph McNamara, who says that this tactic is ineffective, counterproductive, and much like “throwing sand against the tide.” Even if the supply of incoming drugs were effectively cut, these critics maintain, the production of domestic drugs such as marijuana and methamphetamine would increase to meet America’s high demand.
Many observers propose that instead of concentrating on interdiction and prohibition, funding should be increased for drug education programs, such as the school-based D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), Life Skills Training, and similar curricula. Taught in most schools to children in kindergarten through high school, these programs stress the dangers associated with illegal drug use. According to advocates, drug awareness and education programs deserve much of the credit for the sharp drop in the overall use of illegal drugs since the early 1980s. Citing marked reductions in Americans’ use of alcohol and tobacco due to improved awareness and education, sociologist William J. Chambliss writes, “The most effective way to reduce [drug] consumption is through education.”
Other observers contend that effective drug treatment programs are more successful at reducing drug use than are interdiction and law enforcement efforts. According to a RAND Corporation study, “Treatment is seven times more costeffective in reducing cocaine consumption than the best supply-control program.” Drug treatment proponents assert that placement in an inpatient addiction program averages $15,000 per year, compared to the $30,000 cost of incarcerating a convicted drug user. Indeed, some states have passed laws that mandate drug treatment instead of imprisonment for nonviolent offenders.
Despite antidrug efforts, millions of Americans continue to use and abuse illegal drugs. According to the ONDCP, “We will have to apply ourselves with a resolve marked by continuing education for our citizens, the determination to resist criminals who traffic in illegal drugs, and the patience and compassion to treat individuals caught in the grip of illegal drugs.” How best to reduce the consumption of drugs is one of the issues examined in Illegal Drugs: Current Controversies, in which authors debate the impact of drugs on society and America’s response to the problem of drug abuse.